While Standing (Six Feet Apart) On One Leg

May 21, 2020

I went to the race track once and bet on a horse. No, really, I did.  In fact, I learned to read the racesheet, compared the track conditions to the track conditions the horses were used to running in, looked for other characteristics and statistics that could tell me more about the horse and the jockey and I placed my massive $3.00 bet.  I won.  And, not only that, I won the next one, two.  So far, I was up about $40 if I remember correctly.  And then I started to lie to myself.  I convinced myself that looking at the data on the sheet would tell me likely outcome of the next race.  And so, I continued to bet and after losing a bit of money, I saw what I was doing and I called it a day. My betting days were over an hour or so after they got started.

As any data scientist will tell you, the data only reflects what was true at a certain moment in time and is not a guarantee of what will happen.  This is not news.  What was news to me is how so skillfully I could lie to myself.  And it is just as true how we can easily be lied to especially if we can’t control the data that comes in.  As we say, the numbers don’t lie…but people sure do. And people lie about the numbers.

The numbers of the COVID-19 ill and dead are horrifying in this country and throughout the world. It is hard enough to know how to properly count mortality rates but common sense says that even if someone had a comorbidity and died of COVID it is no different than someone who has cancer and dies in a car accident.  They still died of COVID.  I know why people are trying to say that they didn’t die of COVID; it keeps the numbers down. 

Then, of course, we have the willful concealing of numbers. The deception works on people for a moment and then inevitably bubbles forth when the truth cannot be concealed any more.  Skewing numbers may convince people that everything is safe.  But when they start collapsing on the street with some dying, that is probably a pretty good indication that the strategy failed.

Last October my wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Iceland, a place we had never been.  We wanted to see the glaciers and the volcanoes and experience the surreal place that is Iceland.  It was a magnificent trip.  And it was only late in the trip that I was researching the geology of the country.  To visit Iceland is to lie to oneself, in a fashion.  Volcanoes are alive.  The ground boils in places.  Glaciers move.  And, to my surprise, more than 500 earthquakes were recorded in Iceland alone in one of the weeks we were there. 

Naturally, we don’t think of the hazards when you travel to that magnificent country, let alone live there.  The geologic processes are generally too slow or too insignificant to take notice of.  Except, of course, when and if you caught in the middle of it.

Skewing the numbers of this virus, lying to ourselves, and taking every effort to mislead is one of the ways how we most certainly not going to get out of this mess.  The most insane part, is that all those states in a rush to reopen and all those people just dying to get a haircut will be the very ones to see if the states should have opened or they should have had that haircut.  They are the very ones that may get sick in a week or so.  The truth won’t become evident in five or six years, but in five or six days.

When the truth emerges, as it always does in this kind of rapidly evolving situation, those who lied to themselves before may change their tune. I am thinking of the people like the man in Georgia who denied, denied, denied until he almost died, died, died. Many, interestingly, will not. Because after the pain comes the justification and after the justification comes the excuse.  I suppose it’s because people have a pretty hard time admitting they were wrong. Some, of course, do. Some simply won’t.

There is verse in Leviticus that sums up the lies we tell ourselves or tell others or the denials that so easily roll off our lips.  The verse is וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל – ‘Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.’  Well, that is pretty much a no-brainer.  So why was it put in the Torah?

First of all, even though we think it’s a no-brainer, there are plenty of people who are intentionally cruel.  I guess if you were to stop there and convince yourself that you are never intentionally cruel that you have somehow fulfilled the commandment.  That is the way a 5 year old reads the Torah.  It is more fitting to look at the commandment and to understand it more broadly.  To put a stumbling block before another is to create a situation or environment where they can be manipulated without any regard to their own right to life or liberty. You know, like spilling out misleading data where people might think it’s safe to go mingle with others while the virus is still alive and multiplying.  Or maybe a stumbling blocks that trips up an entire community like a church, synagogue or mosque.  Those ‘leaders’ are themselves the stumbling block who think that the power of the divine will keep them safe.  Yeah, many of them got sick and died.  I guess COVID didn’t study theology.

Our self-created stumbling blocks are our incessant lies to ourselves that we can outsmart the virus or that some ethereal outside source is trying to repress our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or something like that.  But in two weeks or so more and more numbers will come in.  Like a bad zombie movie, we can pretend we aren’t seeing what we are seeing.  Maybe we can tell ourselves our own Superman immunity stories.  (Our religious friends who believe they are immune certainly told themselves that.  Their cemetery plot begs to differ). Maybe we can tell ourselves that there really aren’t that many zombies!  But you know how all these movies end – I certainly do since I have seen every single one of them, I think.  They always end with the survivors being surrounded by the inexorable hoard of zombies and we hear one of the characters scream followed by the screen going dark as the movie ends.  Or, more sinisterly, leading us to think that the good guys got away only to be accosted at the very last moment of the movie where we see the zombie reaching out just before the screen goes dark.  Either way, the movies end the same way. 

In my metaphor, the zombies represent the truth.  The truth exists even if you want to bury it.  But the truth and the real numbers will keep coming and coming and coming and no manner of strength or strategy is used to keep it buried.  The stumbling block which others think is impenetrable is really just made of sand and the truth which we have tried so hard to avoid and ignore will keep battering it – and us – without stopping.

The price we pay for the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we believe wittingly is another tragedy in this 95,000 dead Americans pandemic. And that is a price that so many more are going to pay.  But, hey, just as long as the numbers look good, right?